Lavinia Goodell: Wisconsin's First Woman Lawyer

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

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“Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character.”

Written by a friend of Lavinia Goodell, May 9, 1866

When she died in 1880, Lavinia Goodell left behind hundreds of letters, multiple diaries, and many published articles which provide insight into her character and personality, but how did the people closest to her view her? Fortunately the William Goodell Family Papers in the Special Collections and Archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky provide firsthand descriptions of Lavinia
Continue Reading “Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character.”

“Went down street. Got my business cards.”
Lavinia Goodell, June 18, 1874

The William Goodell Family papers, housed in the Special Collections and Archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, contain hundreds of letters written or received by Lavinia Goodell, starting from her teenage years in the 1850s and continuing until her death in 1880. In addition, the papers include scores of letters to and from other family members, some of which mention Lavinia. A recent visit to Berea
Continue Reading “Went down street. Got my business cards.”

“If a woman can’t dress in a rational and decent way, I shouldn’t like to live among such barbarians.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 8, 1853

In 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia Goodell tried unsuccessfully to encourage her twenty-six year old sister Maria to try a new fashion trend: bloomers.

A bloomer dress

In the mid 1800s, women wore corsets and multiple petticoats weighing as much as fifteen pounds in order to fill out their skirts. These voluminous undergarments made movement
Continue Reading “If a woman can’t dress in a rational and decent way, I shouldn’t like to live among such barbarians.”

“I screamed ‘Fire’ and called to Pa”
Lavinia Goodell, December 28, 1853

Fourteen-year-old Lavinia Goodell experienced two harrowing events in December of 1853. On December 10, while working in her father’s offices in lower Manhattan she witnessed the huge fire that destroyed Harper & Brothers publishing company. On December 28 she was again helping her father when a fire broke out in the next room.

William Goodell had moved to Brooklyn with his wife and daughter earlier in the
Continue Reading “I screamed ‘Fire’ and called to Pa”

“You have probably heard news of the great fire.”
Lavinia Goodell, December 14, 1853

Lavinia Goodell lived in New York (mainly in Brooklyn but also, for a year, in Manhattan) from 1853 until 1871. During her years in the city she witnessed many historic events. She watched president-elect Lincoln’s carriage procession from a Fifth Avenue balcony. She and her family survived the deadly draft riots of 1863. In December of 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia was an eye witness
Continue Reading “You have probably heard news of the great fire.”

“We next proceeded to Barnum’s museum”
Lavinia Goodell, October 12, 1853

P.T. Barnum was a nineteenth century showman who is best known for founding the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1871. But nearly twenty-five years earlier he purchased a museum in what is now New York City’s financial district, added unusual – and often fake or deceiving – exhibits, and renamed the establishment Barnum’s American Museum. In the early 1850s, the museum was a popular tourist destination and in
Continue Reading “We next proceeded to Barnum’s museum.”

“I visited the Crystal Palace and must tell you all about it.”
Lavinia Goodell, November 23, 1853

In the summer of 1853, the Crystal Palace exhibition building opened on 42nd Street in New York City, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, in what is now Bryant Park. Inspired by London’s 1851 Crystal Palace, the New York edifice had the shape of a Greek cross and featured a dome that was 148 feet high and 100 feet in diameter.

Crystal Palace
Continue Reading “I visited the Crystal Palace and must tell you all about it.”

“Mrs. Stanton has sent us her picture and Miss Anthony’s to hang up in our office.”
Lavinia Goodell, April 5, 1879

Lavinia Goodell had a lifelong admiration for the work Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony did to promote women’s rights, particularly suffrage. Lavinia’s mother, Clarissa Cady Goodell, was a cousin of Stanton’s through her fourth great grandfather. Lavinia, along with her mother and sister, followed Stanton’s and Anthony’s writings and Lavinia regularly corresponded with both women.

Elizabeth
Continue Reading “Mrs. Stanton has sent us her picture and Miss Anthony’s to hang up in our office.”

“Next Sunday, Mrs. Van Cott again.”
Lavinia Goodell, July 13, 1873

Lavinia Goodell championed the right of all women to enter the profession of their choice. She believed that by developing their minds, women would be able to support themselves financial and  potentially avoid the need to embark upon a loveless marriage solely for economic reasons. She strongly supported women entering the clergy, a notion that was anathema even to some otherwise progressive nineteenth century men.

Lavinia made a
Continue Reading “Next Sunday, Mrs. Van Cott again.”

“She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations.”
Allan Pinkerton’s comment on Kate Warne

Although Lavinia Goodell and Kate Warne never met, in February of 1861 they shared a common interest: following the progress of Abraham Lincoln’s journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C.  On the afternoon of February 19,  twenty-one year old Lavinia joined throngs of other New Yorkers to watch the president-elect’s carriage procession in mid-town Manhattan. (Read her account here.)

While Lavinia was in Manhattan, Kate
Continue Reading “She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations.”

“You had become a person in the eyes of the Wis. Supreme Court.”
Emma Brown letter to Lavinia Goodell, July 11, 1879

Emma Brown, publisher of the Wisconsin Chief temperance newspaper, helped give Lavinia Goodell’s nascent legal career a boost in the summer of 1874.

Emma was born in Auburn, New York in 1827.

Emma Brown

In 1849, Emma and her brother, Thurlow W. Brown, became co-publishers and co-editors of the Cayuga Chief, a temperance newspaper. By 1857, the
Continue Reading “You had become a person in the eyes of the Wis. Supreme Court.”

Lavinia Goodell’s work in the temperance movement is well known, but she also had a lifelong aversion to the use of tobacco products. Lavinia grew up in a household that followed the principles of Dr. Sylvester Graham. In the 1830s, Lavinia’s father had lived in one of Graham’s boarding houses in New York City. Residents who were caught using tobacco were asked to leave. (Drinking coffee, tea, chocolate or liquor were also evictable offenses.)

In the 1860s and
Continue Reading “The expectorations of tobacco juice in the Circuit Court sometimes become alarming.”

“A lady who was deaf had cured herself by wearing warm biscuit & butter on her ears.”

Maria Goodell Frost, July 11, 1853

Lavinia Goodell’s sister, Maria Frost, began losing her hearing as a young woman.

Maria Goodell Frost

Maria’s obituary, published soon after her death on December 31, 1899, said:

[T]he affliction of deafness … began soon after her marriage and gradually increased. For thirty years she heard no public speaking, for twenty years no music, and for
Continue Reading “A lady who was deaf had cured herself by wearing warm biscuit & butter on her ears.”

“I am filled with horror at the idea of you not having any reading.”
Lavinia Goodell to Maria Frost, March 10, 1867

The Goodell family was very well read, and their letters frequently mentioned their current literary selections. When Lavinia’s sister Maria Frost and her family moved from New York state to Janesville, Wisconsin in the late 1860s, Maria found herself missing many of the amenities of life in the east, especially the lack of a public library. Lavinia
Continue Reading “I am filled with horror at the idea of you not having any reading.”

“I suppose your mother has told you of our tip over going to the society.”
Sarah Thomas to Lavinia Goodell, February 9, 1866

Researching mid-nineteenth century history gives one an appreciation for the many modern conveniences we all take for granted. Reliable transportation for one. It is unlikely that Lavinia Goodell’s parents ever owned a horse. They walked to nearby destinations and took the train or a stagecoach when travelling farther afield.

From 1865 until 1870, Lavinia’s parents lived
Continue Reading “I suppose your mother has told you of our tip over going to the society.”

“I have bought a new dress for summer.”
Lavinia Goodell, April 24, 1871

Although Lavinia Goodell had no illusions that she was a beauty – in fact, she frequently commented that she was “plain” and many of her short stories feature ordinary looking women with uncommon intelligence – she enjoyed dressing well and kept up with current fashion trends. For most of her life money was in short supply and she sewed her own garments – after determining where
Continue Reading “I have bought a new dress for summer.”